Middle school students in the Long Island Sound coastal city of Stamford, Connecticut (USA) are well aware of the problems caused by mismanaged plastic waste. They see it on their beaches and their playgrounds before it reaches the water. After it does, they see it under a microscope as tiny, often invisible particles known as microplastics, suspended in Long Island Sound water samples, hazardous to the health of animals and humans. Every middle school student in Stamford’s public schools studies microplastics with SoundWaters, an environmental education organization focused on the protection of Long Island Sound.
In September 2019, SoundWaters challenged students to turn their education into action and their unprecedented efforts have led them to a unique collaboration with top plastics engineers and industrial designers to contribute to a solution to the local and global problem of microplastics. Over the course of a single school year, Stamford middle schools were on a quest to collect one million plastic bottle caps to prevent them from ever reaching Long Island Sound. Despite the onset of the pandemic in early spring, they reached their goal by the end of the school year, collecting 1,028,177 plastic caps.
What Do You Do With One Million Bottle Caps?
The students’ goal has always been to turn their two tons of plastic waste into usable products that could benefit the community. But how? Enter two global organizations, the Society of Plastics Engineers Foundation (SPE) and the World Design Organization (WDO)®. Beginning this March, teams of 11 to 13 year-old students at Stamford’s Rippowam Middle School and Rogers International School will participate in a series of virtual workshops to learn more about the design process. Over the course of eight weeks, WDO will pair young industrial designers from across the world to contribute their expertise to help guide students as they aim to ultimately deliver a real and meaningful new product made from plastic bottle caps collected. The students will also have access to the SPE Foundation’s new PlastiVideo™ STEM-focused plastics education program, learning why it is important, and how their bottle caps can be recycled or upcycled. With the help of local SPE university students they will ultimately create a product mold. Meanwhile, Braskem, SPE’s partner in plastics education, will process the bottle caps to produce the plastic pellets that will be used to manufacture the students’ design.
According to SoundWaters president, Leigh Shemitz, PhD, the collaboration between the students and professional designers is a win-win-win. “These young students have learned enough about microplastics to understand that we have a global problem. The Million Bottle Cap Challenge inspired them to take action, to use their collective voice and engage the community in the first step of a solution by collecting two tons of plastic bottle caps, thereby ensuring that at least that plastic will never reach Long Island Sound. Now, through their wonderful opportunity to work with engineers and professional designers at the SPE Foundation and WDO, they will be introduced to the next steps in an ultimate solution to our plastics problem. Ultimately, we hope that a solution to our plastic waste problem comes during their lifetime.”
Eve Vitale, Chief Executive of the SPE Foundation explained, “Our goal for this project is to encourage young people to become innovators, by using their creativity and imagination, to help the global community solve the marine debris issues we are all facing. It is our hope that students will be motivated by their success to eventually join the professionals around the world who are seeking equitable solutions through sound engineering and science.”
Each week, students will be introduced to the theories and methodologies of the design process such as user research through observation, ideation and concept development. “We believe that design has the power to change lives, so this opportunity to work with such young minds is one that we approach with great enthusiasm and care,” stated WDO President Srini Srinivasan. “Through simplified, fun and interactives exchanges, students will be exposed to the problem-solving nature of design in a hands-on approach to a real-world challenge.”
The initiative will conclude with the selection and development of one of the proposed projects worked on by the students later in the year. Collectively, Soundwaters, SPE Foundation and WDO hope that this initiative will continue to nurture an awareness on the interaction between users, objects and the environment in which we live.
SoundWaters, founded in 1989, is the premier environmental education organization focused on the protection of Long Island Sound and its watershed. Annually, SoundWaters hosts shipboard and land-based programs for 32,000 students. SoundWaters works in partnership with schools, communities, civic organizations, businesses and other environmental and educational organizations to develop experiences that foster a sense of responsibility for the environment and encourage actions that ensure the sustainable future of Long Island Sound. SoundWaters advances environmental justice and educational equity by creating broader access to Long Island Sound because our communities are stronger when we are connected to and learning from, the Sound.
About the Million Bottle Cap Challenge
A joint effort between SoundWaters and NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), the challenge is the take-action component of a broader study of Long Island Sound that students learn at SoundWaters. During the 2019/20 school year, area students collected 1,028,177 bottle caps and are aiming to beat that number this year.
The SPE Foundation supports the development of plastics professionals by funding quality educational programs, grants and scholarships emphasizing science, engineering, sustainability, and manufacturing while working to create inclusive opportunities for students around the world. The PlastiVan® program serves over 25,000 students a year changing the perception of plastics one classroom at a time by promoting sustainable practices, innovation and STEM careers in the plastics industry.
About the World Design Organization
World Design Organization (WDO)®, formerly the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid), is an international non-governmental organization founded in 1957 to promote the profession of industrial design. WDO advocates industrial design driven innovation that creates a better world, engaging more than 180 member organizations in collaborative efforts and carrying out international programming—World Design Capital®, World Design Talks™, World Design Impact Prize™, World Industrial Design Day™, and Interdesign™. WDO has United Nations Special Consultative Status.